“Sometimes, there’s no need to talk,” frustrated Parisian artist Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) says to a potential lover early into Claire Denis’ new movie, Let The Sunshine In. The words could function as a kind of author’s statement, even a motto, under normal circumstances. Denis, the French writer and director of such sensual, mysterious objects as The Intruder and 35 Shots Of Rum, has spent most of her career keeping verbal communication to an onscreen minimum; her films tend to unfold through body language, significant glances, revealing imagery—really, anything but copious chitchat, expository or otherwise. Which is precisely what makes Let The Sunshine In, despite that seemingly apropos line, such an aberration: Here, no one ever stops talking, albeit more at each other than with. It isn’t an exaggeration to suggest that there might be more dialogue in this movie than in all of Denis’ other ones combined. A master of the unspoken has made her first true gabfest.
In spirit, if not in style, Let The Sunshine In is basically an offbeat romantic comedy. That’s a first for Denis, too, though part of what makes her such an exciting filmmaker is that she’s always applying her elliptical, occasionally nonlinear style to different genres, from noir to prestige literary adaptation to the vampire movie. The film unfolds as a series of glimpses into the love life of its main character, a divorcée passing from one fling to the next, wondering if she’ll ever find a romance built to last. Isabelle’s suitors are a spectrum of Mr. Wrongs: a callous, married banker (fellow French filmmaker Xavier Beauvois) with no intention of leaving his wife; an unnamed, indecisive actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle), also married but more unhappily; a man of modest means (Paul Blain) whose only real demerit as boyfriend material is that he hails from outside of Isabelle’s social strata, her art-world bubble.
The vignette-like structure (suggested alternate title: Scenes From The Dating Scene) reflects an unlikely source material: A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, French post-structuralist Roland Barthes’ 1977 collection of insights into the agony of love. A non-narrative exercise in psychological theory that sometimes reads like poetry, the book is dense with literary and philosophical references but also so astute on the workings of a besotted mind and broken heart that it’s earned a passionate following among those prone to swooning and/or wallowing. It’s Barthes’ observations about the language of infatuation that may have drawn Denis—whose own work could frequently be subtitled Fragments, come to think of it—to “adapt” this unadaptable text. If her best movies groove on what isn’t said, trusting audiences to keep up with the wordless rapport, maybe Let The Sunshine In takes the opposite tact to show how ineffectual speech can be as a tool for really being understood, really being heard.
Over and over again, Denis demonstrates how words get in the way. The banker speaks his mind, destroying all fantasy and illusion—the kind on which relationships sometimes depend, at least initially. The actor, by contrast, is too paralyzed with doubt to say what he feels; “I said it, but don’t listen to everything I say,” he tells Isabelle during one of their long, circular exchanges. (Notably, it’s only when they abandon conversation that the two end up falling into bed together.) Talking her way in and out of companionship, growing no closer to the flawed, incompatible men in her life, Isabelle is stuck in a romantic feedback loop. Doesn’t it say something that the most meaningful connection she forges may be with the least verbose of her potential love interests, a museum curator played by sensitive, soft-spoken Denis regular Alex Descas?
There is a method to all that chatter, in other words—one that reaches beyond the self-defeating case Let The Sunshine In makes for Denis’ more seductively terse tone poems. And how, besides, could anyone resist witnessing one of the world’s most expressive filmmakers turn her lens on one of the world’s most expressive actors? From the opening scene, a realistically messy tryst, Binoche offers a flux of vulnerability and pragmatism—the perfect equilibrium for someone torn between opening herself up to the possibility of real romance and guarding her heart from the sting of failed courtship. You just can’t help but wish that Denis let us closer to the character, let us know her better. She remains an enigma throughout, as though the film were putting up the same protective barriers Isabelle does, hiding her as surely as she hides herself.
In some sense, Let The Sunshine In is too familiar: Denis and longtime cinematographer Agnès Godard have turned their gazes on the lonely, nocturnal beauty of Paris before, and they’ve staged a better version of one of this movie’s key scenes, a barroom dance to an unexpected needle drop, which can’t help but bring to mind the more suggestive, romantic 35 Shots Of Rum. In other respects, the movie simply plays against its director’s strengths, challenging her capacity to make banal conversation visually interesting. (“Language is a skin,” Barthes famously insists in Fragments, but one misses how Denis often makes the reverse true.) It is, in blessed spurts, funny—and never more so than during a late, priceless cameo by another icon of French cinema, all the film’s miscommunication becoming a joke onto itself, a sly ellipsis that runs right into the end credits. Perhaps it’s best to approach Let The Sunshine In as a talky palate-cleanser before Denis’ next big genre experiment, the forthcoming sci-fi movie High Life. In space, one hopes, nobody can hear you blather.